Composition Time

  • Romantic poets “admired the poetry of previous generations, very rightly, for the taste it left in the head, and, failing to realize that the process of putting such a taste into a reader’s head involves a great deal of work which does not feel like a taste in the head while it is being done, attempting, therefore, to conceive a taste in the head and put it straight on to their paper, they produced tastes in the head which were in fact blurred, complacent, and unpleasing .”

This is from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (originally published in 1930; quoted from the revised third edition, page 22). It’s a statement about the difference between crafting and experiencing any work of art. Empson argues that the Romantic poets created inferior poetry because they rushed the process of writing poetry. They wanted to put their ideas “straight to paper” and ignored the rule that artistic work “does not feel like a taste in the head while it is being done,” even if the goal is to give someone (even yourself) this taste in the head when the work is finished.

As for me, I like the Romantic poets, but I see Empson’s point about process-versus-product in general. In fact, Empson’s intentionally convoluted prose here reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s discussion in “Composition as Explanation,” first published in 1926. Here’s an excerpt focusing on the reality of the product when it is consumed (when you read the poem or book), compared to the strange (but real) reality of the work-in-process. It’s best, by the way, to read this aloud until you figure out where the emphases and pauses go. As you stop, start, start again, and reread, you actually seem to experience Stein’s point that meaning depends on the “living that everyone is doing”:

  • “The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living that they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition and of that perhaps every one can be certain.

    No one thinks these things when they are making when they are creating what is the composition, naturally no one thinks, that is no one formulates until what is to be formulated has been made.”